Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission Awareness - Education - Inspiration

MLA16: Practical Applications for Teaching about Genocides in the Classroom


By J.E. Wolfson

Attending the MLA

The Modern Language Association (MLA) is an international association of almost 30,000 scholars of language and literature, making it the largest of its kind. Every January, academics fly in from all over the world to discuss resolutions, attend an exhibit by book publishers, and present or provide feedback to academic papers. The annual convention always centers on a theme. “Literature and its Publics: Past, Present, and Future” met January 7-10 right here in Austin. Paper proposals were submitted up to a year in advance, and I was pleased to learn in early March of 2015 that I would be a presenter for this year.

This would be my second time presenting at MLA. The other time was 2014 in Chicago in record-breaking cold, and I am surely not the only attendee to have been thrilled by the prospect of a Texas venue this time around. Weather was not the only big difference between 2014 and 2016, however. For one thing, this was the first academic conference that I would be attending not as an associate professor, but as a staff member for the THGC, and I received excellent feedback regarding how important our work is to Texas and the wider community.

Another difference is that two years ago, I was on a panel examining the Shoah (the Reich’s assault on European Jewry) and its aftermath, but in this year’s session, mine would be the only paper discussing genocide. My panel was about Life Writing, which is a growing field in academia that involves the close reading of memoirs, autobiographies, biographies, journals, diaries, letters, and even social media. The title of the session was “Metamorphosing Memoirs,” meaning my fellow panelists and I examined the process of remediating such texts. While the others dealt with texts that included a blog about Julia Child, a Twitter account by Salman Rushdie, and an anthology of race and gender, I looked at three Holocaust memoirs by Fania Fénelon, Salomon (Solomon/Solly) Perel, and Gisella Perl, and their respective film adaptations. In future blogs and upcoming workshops, I will discuss these texts in greater depth. For now, I want to focus on the adaptation aspect and what it means for the classroom.

In the Classroom

Traditionally, the study of film adaptation has mainly focused on how Hollywood has treated classic novels and Shakespearean plays, but more recently the field has expanded to include less famous works and less conventional formats, including everything from graphic novels to social media. I am a strong advocate for the teaching of adaptation, which can provide students with interesting insights to the reading of written texts and the study of historical events. Watching particular film adaptations and then returning to their sources to examine points of contrast can help a student appreciate just what writers might be trying to say and how they chose to try to say it, as well as what other choices were available. A helpful book on this subject is Dennis Cutchins and Lawrence Raw’s The Pedagogy of Adaptation, which includes several chapters written by high school teachers.

Those of us who teach about the Shoah and genocides can reach students in exciting ways by employing lessons on adaptation in the classroom. Students from elementary school through graduate school ages can benefit from this comparative approach. Because the Shoah and genocides are by nature provocative and shocking to an audience, film adaptations typically soften them in controversial ways. Encouraging students to analyze those sorts of decisions and the motivations behind them can foster higher level thinking skills. As many of us have observed, reluctant readers in our classrooms suddenly come alive with interest when confronted with audiovisual materials. By using such materials by way of adaptation, we can motivate reluctant readers to approach a literary text with a purpose that is meaningful to them. For further ideas, please call or email us at the THGC and/or plan to attend an upcoming workshop later in 2016.

Tags: modern language association mla16 shoah holocaust genocide life writing memoir pedagogy literature film adaptation


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